By G.S. Mauro

Friday afternoon was a busy time at the salon—only Saturday afternoon was busier—and Ariel Bauer had had a full day. By seven o’clock she was finishing up. Once she combed out this head, she’d be done, and she could go home, take a shower, change her clothes, and eat dinner in front of the TV with her father.

It sounded like heaven.

She tweaked a wave into place, smoothed a curl, and cranked down the heavy salon chair, turning it so that the newly coiffed blonde whose hair she regularly tinted, conditioned, trimmed, permed, set, and combed, could see the effect. Ariel’s own short, curly, dark hair was styled by the rules of wash-and-wear, and she was grateful to women who liked to mess with Mother Nature and could afford to do so. They kept the rent paid, and Ariel wanted to keep them happy.

“So?” she asked, smiling into the mirror over her client’s shoulder and passing her a large hand mirror. “Take a look at the back. What do you think?”

“I love the layers,” Jennifer Saunders said, fluffing out her hair, turning her head from one side to the other. “You’re so clever with hair. I’d never go to another salon.”

“I’m glad you’re pleased,” Ariel said. “I’ve had some intensive training and practice.”

Training and practice, she thought, that she had received in the federal penitentiary when she’d been incarcerated there. Not that she’d ever tell Jennifer Saunders that.

With the flair of a matador, Ariel flung away the plastic cape protecting Jennifer’s shoulders. Giving one last toss to her styled head, her client headed to the back to change out of the dressing gown that the salon provided its pampered customers. Ariel started to sweep the floor.

Ariel was lucky to be working at Pink’s,San Francisco’s premier hair salon, a long-established and extremely expensive, busy, and conservative establishment that catered to the wealthy and leisured. She never would have gotten the try-out without a special recommendation from a very treasured—and powerful—Pink’s client, and Vivien Pink had only reluctantly auditioned Ariel for a coveted spot. But Ariel’s skill and willing attitude—along with the recommendation of the governor’s wife—had convinced the owner. After five months, with a growing clientele who asked for her specifically, Ariel’s job was as secure as an ex-con could ever hope it would be.

Ariel dumped the clippings from Jennifer’s cut into the trash bin. She was done. It was seven o’clock, and Roxy was the only other stylist still at her station, working on a perm for Agatha Armbruster, the salon’s most elderly client. Roxy could be there for a while.

As Ariel put the broom and dustpan back into the closet, the receptionist came back, frowning a little.

“Two walk-ins for you, Ariel,” she said. “They asked for you specifically. Can you take them?”

Ariel sighed. She wanted to get home. She was tired. She and Poppi had plans to make popcorn and watch a movie. But cutting hair was how she earned her living. And Vivien Pink liked her because she took all the bad schedules, the fussy clients, and the poor tippers—and turned them into enthusiastic regulars.

Roxy looked up from rolling a sausage curl onto Agatha Armbruster’s withered scalp.

“I can do one of the cuts while Mrs. Armbruster is setting,” she said. “If that helps.”

It would help, thought Ariel. It would get her home at eight instead of nine. She and Poppi could still watch the movie.

“Okay,” she said. “Thanks, Roxy. Send them back, Gina. Let’s do this.”

Sam stood at the receptionist’s desk and watched Brian Lozano read a rate card of the upscale salon’s services.

“Can you believe the prices?” Lozano asked, his voice low. “Tell me the truth, Mac. Did you ever get your hair cut in a salon like this?”

“Are you kidding? I always go to one of those ten-dollar places.”

“Me, too.”

Lozano put the rate card back and they both looked around the plush salon. The reception area looked more like a nice hotel than a place where hair was cut. The walls were painted dark gray, and ornate white moldings framed the doors and windows. Zebra-print upholstered sofas formed a U around a gas fireplace, and low side tables held huge brass bowls full of white day lilies. Only the bright fuchsia throw pillows picked up on the salon’s name, Pink’s.

“Still,” Lozano said, almost wistfully, “I wouldn’t mind getting a manicure sometime. Just to see what it’s like.”

“Too bad the manicurist has gone home for the day.”

“Damn, I knew I should have made an appointment. Our Ariel has done well for herself.”

“She always does.”

Sam heard the sour note in his voice even as he said the words. He didn’t respect people who broke the law. A little speeding, parking tickets, maybe taking an extra exemption on your taxes—small things he understood. But doing bodily harm, property damage—or computer hacking—those crimes were different. He felt contempt for people who were too lazy, too stupid, or too evil to be honest. Take Bauer—a certified math genius, a free ride at the university, a father who adored her—everything going for her, and she threw it all away. Claimed, even, that the crime hadn’t been serious enough to punish.

Sam couldn’t help it. He didn’t like criminals. Period.

But in a sick and pathetic way, he envied her success now. Admired her for achieving it. They’d arrested her for hacking, thus destroying her computer career forever. She was convicted and went to prison, was attacked and beaten there, almost raped, and developed bleeding ulcers. The FBI had kicked her hard, rearranged—even ruined—her life. And her father had barely survived a murder attempt in the time she’d been in prison. Sam had seen how that had crushed her.

Still, she hadn’t focused on the what-might-have-beens. She’d endured. She’d dug in, plowed forward. She’d even—and he still wanted to know how this had happened—she’d even made friends with the governor’s wife.

Not like him. When Sam’s world had collapsed—when his brother, his twin brother—was murdered, Sam had gone off the deep end. He’d lost his way. Abused suspects. Abused, god help him, Ariel Bauer. Been forced to transfer from Homicide. Nearly lost his career. He thought Bauer was the stupid one, because she’d committed a crime. But his crimes—well, he had the power of the badge, so he hadn’t technically committed any crimes. But he and Lozano—and the rest of the FBI—knew how his rage and grief had ruled him, owned him, made him stupid. Made him a worse cop. A dangerous cop.

He hadn’t seen her in five months, and soon he’d be talking to the woman who—much against his will—showed him what strength meant, what courage was.

“Gentlemen?” The receptionist came back. “Follow me, please.”

When footsteps entered her work area, Ariel looked up from rinsing her combs and felt her stomach lurch. Two men she’d hoped she’d never see again stood in front of her, wearing their inevitable dark suits. She’d met them almost a year ago, when they entered her life and destroyed it. In the five months since she’d last seen them, she’d managed to get back on her feet. It hadn’t been easy. But now she and Poppi were doing all right. Mostly.

Five months hadn’t changed them. Sam MacAteer’s body was still long and lean, his craggy features so harshly defined they could have been hacked out of stone. Brian Lozano was shorter and stockier with a quick grin. They stood there in the shop, watching her like scientists who had a bug under a microscope. Ariel felt like throwing up, but she’d never let them see how much they upset her. They had nothing on her now.

“These guys are kidding you, Gina,” Ariel told the receptionist. “They don’t want haircuts.”

She watched Gina glance doubtfully at the men’s heads. Neither of them looked like they were kidding. They didn’t look like they needed haircuts, either.

“We need to talk to you,” MacAteer said. “Is there someplace we can go that’s more private?”

“No!” Ariel realized that she’d spoken more sharply than she intended, and she took a deep breath to steady herself. She wanted to keep her personal history out of the salon. No one there had any idea that she was an ex-con, and Ariel intended to keep it that way. She could keep her secret if she got rid of MacAteer and Lozano. Whatever they wanted, the answer was no.

“No,” she said again, more quietly this time, stepping closer to them, turning her back on the other three women. “You have no business coming here. You want to talk to me, you can call me on the phone like anybody else. Now go away and stay away.”

“Would you talk to us if we called you?” MacAteer asked.

He had a point. She wouldn’t.

“Ariel? Is there a problem?” Vivien Pink’s crisp voice cut through the sudden silence.

Ariel felt her heart sink. She glanced over to see her employer standing in the doorway, a frown on her face. Vivien wouldn’t need much of an excuse to fire her. She hadn’t wanted to hire her in the first place.

“No, Vivien. No problem,” she said, her voice tight.

“Ariel’s explaining the services,” MacAteer said.

“Ariel?”

“Yes.” She felt a stab of pain through her jaw and realized she was clenching her teeth. She hated these men. They’d destroyed her first career. Seven years of hard work. She’d won the world’s most prestigious prize for computer scientists. And it was all gone forever because of them.

Now they were back, and she knew they planned to destroy this career, too. They hated her as much as she hated them. They’d ruin her altogether if they could.

She would not let them.

These men had taken almost everything from her, but Ariel had survived. She’d survived prison, finished cosmetology school, and with powerful help from the governor’s wife, she’d gotten the job at Pink’s. But if she lost this job, she wouldn’t get another one as good. Might not get any job at all. And she had to work. Poppi depended on her. Ariel’s back was against the wall. And MacAteer and Lozano’s appearance at the shop showed that they knew it.

“Well, then. Gentlemen, Ariel will show you where to change.”

Vivien walked back to her office, and Ariel glared at the men, lowering her voice.

“You have crossed the line. You are harassing me at work, and if either of you ever bothers me again, I will make you sorry. You’ve seen what I can do, and now I have a lot less to lose. So do not ever step foot in here again. You want to talk to me? Get a haircut. Do you understand me?”

Sam looked at her, not visibly scared. “We’re going to talk, Ariel. Tell me where I change.”

Lozano beamed at Agatha, Gina, and Roxy, all of whom stared open-mouthed at the other three.

“So,” he said. “I’d like to make an appointment for a manicure.”

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